by Linda S. Hartoonian-Almas and Liane J. Leedom, M.D.
Psychopathic individuals take the lives of their victims, at least figuratively, sometimes literally. The aftermath of victimization by a psychopathic individual often impacts every sphere of a person’s life. Victims are harmed psychologically, emotionally, physically, financially, and socially. The devastation can be far reaching. Since victimization by psychopathic romantic partners and spouses often occurs in early and middle adulthood, victims may lose the most productive years of their lives. Children who grow up coping with a psychopathic parent may experience developmental harm that is life-long.
In one recent survey[i] of women who reported involvement with individuals with psychopathic features, they reported the following harm:
|Percent Reporting||Type of Harm|
There are five sources for the information found in this resource including the above survey. The first is our experience talking with victims and reading their stories on our site. The other four are written sources listed at the end of this resource[ii]. Because the people reportedly characterized by psychopathic traits in prior studies have not all been tested with a clinically valid measure of psychopathy, we must caution readers that all of our knowledge in this area is preliminary, and some of this knowledge is likely to change as more and better studies are conducted. Our experience with victims has taught us that adult men are victimized too, even though there is not as much written information about that victimization.
Psychological and Emotional Harm
By psychological and emotional harm, we mean effects on the way victims think and feel. In many cases, it appears that the most devastating psychological effects of long-term relationships with psychopathic individuals are due to the impact of deception.
Life with a psychopathic individual is characterized by outright lies, slight omissions, and clever manipulations. It can be devastating for victims to discover that almost none of what they viewed as facts actually were. Often, upon learning the truths which are part of the psychopath’s actual reality, the victim experiences great pain and disbelief.
It is not unusual for the victims of psychopaths to question their sanity and self worth. This is often exacerbated by the psychopathic individual looking the victim in the eye and denying that events they both experienced together happened.
Psychopathic individuals may even try to convince victims that it is they who are “crazy.” This is so common, that victims talking on the internet have adopted the term “gas lighting” to refer to this practice. The term gas lighting comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which a romantic swindler tries to convince his new wife she is insane by lowering the gas fueled lights in their home. She realizes the lighting is different, but he tells her it is fine and that there is no change (as part of his attempt to make her think she is crazy). Due to deception, manipulation and “gas lighting,” many victims are left with damage to their sense of basic trust in other people. Some struggle with emotional intimacy for years afterwards.
Generally, psychopathic individuals are out to service their own short term agendas. Concern for others in their lives is often non-existent. This lack of concern for others extends even to the immediate family including, children, spouses, parents, and siblings. However, it is not always apparent or clearly understood by those watching it happen or experiencing it.
Once an individual is no longer of use to the psychopath, it is common for that person to be discarded. This may result in the victim experiencing feelings of disbelief, anger, disposability, worthlessness, and hopelessness. Outright anguish may surface once the psychopath’s true colors begin to show.
It is rare that victims actually recognize what is happening to them until it is too late. Because of this, many victims never fully understand the full complexity of the situation. Frequently, they are so entangled in the web of confusion the psychopath has managed to spin, that seeing the psychopath for what he or she is, rather than how he or she portrays himself, may be quite difficult.
A psychologist in writing a psychopath’s evaluation described how difficult it is to comprehend and reconcile the reality of the psychopath with his positive presentation (or persona). The psychologist reported that, following an evaluation of a parent with psychopathic features, she had had difficulty reconciling the positive persona superficially presented by the psychopath with the contradictory facts she had gathered during the forensic evaluation. If trained forensic mental health professionals have trouble reconciling the positive persona with the psychopath’s actual nature, it is no wonder that family members, especially children, usually have trouble doing so.
It is likely that the psychopath has spent so much time manipulating the victim’s reality that the victim cannot always distinguish fact from fiction. However, there tends to be an underlying sense that much is wrong. Things may seem very “off,” leaving a pervasive feeling of uneasiness that is often unexplainable. If no specifics can be pinpointed, and victims’ descriptions of their feelings are vague, they may begin to feel and appear less credible, even to themselves.
Victims also tend to experience a knowledge or sense that they are being bullied or pursued for a purpose that does not really matter to the psychopath. The goal may be to achieve something material in nature or may be to achieve control over a person, such as a child, who is important to the victim. The psychopath may simply feel entitled to “ownership rights.” Yet the victim is usually aware that the psychopath does not really care about what they are trying to gain. In fact, in reality, the psychopath’s acquisition of the “object” may actually be a detriment in the long term. Rather, the true goal may be simply to “win” against the victim. Once attained, the psychopath often loses interest in their new acquisition. The victim may also live in fear that any of the psychopath’s achievements or certain alliances may result in harm. The end result is anxiety about the future and emotional turmoil within the victim. Victims often feel battered, ganged up on and drained, with an inability to function normally.
All the harm we have mentioned thus far is from covert abuse. Psychopathic individuals also may openly psychologically abuse their victims by denigrating and terrorizing them. In emphasizing covert abuse here, we do not mean to under-emphasize the impact of overt abuse, which is itself extremely damaging. We have focused on covert abuse because there is less information available on these forms of abuse that may be less common or more specific to psychopathic individuals. We hope to provide more information about emotional abuse and psychopathy on this website over time. For now, we simply note that emotional abuse can be extremely harmful to victims. Sadly, some victims attempt suicide as a result of hopelessness, helplessness and the belief there is no way out. Some victims have reported to us that psychopaths have actually encouraged them to take their own lives or have indicated that they would put them through so much turmoil that their only recourse would be suicide.
Physical Effects and Medical Illness
Victims’ realizations and actual trouble caused by psychopathic individuals can cause tremendous stress which can harm a person’s well-being. In most cases, the psychopath’s abuse is calculated and exact. Yet, it tends to be delivered with “precise ambiguity.” The abuse is often sporadic, but reccurring over time. In spite of the fact that the abuse is repeated, the victim cannot predict when it is likely to occur. The psychopath has the ability to present what appears to be a very loving and caring persona. As a result, victims sometimes feel they were wrong about their feelings and that they misinterpreted the abuse or its meaning. Just as the victim comes to terms with and justifies the mistreatment, further abuse is delivered.
Since victims are left not knowing what to expect, this produces unpredictable and uncontrollable stress that has the potential to wear on victims and impact their physical, as well as mental health. The potential for added physical complications exists because victims are often in weakened states, leaving their bodies less able to defend against disease.
In short, the combined stress of the struggle presented by daily living and extreme emotional or physical abuse or both, weakens the body as well as stresses the mind. Such stress, generally speaking, is linked to medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes mellitus. Stress is also linked to psychological conditions such as major depression and PTSD. Victims may try to cope with stress by abusing prescription medication, drinking alcohol and or smoking. This may increase risk for health problems associated with these substances. Victims may also cope by eating “comfort food” in large amounts and are therefore at heightened risk for developing obesity. Their participation in preventive health measures like exercise and medical office visits also may decrease; developing health problems therefore go undiscovered.
Psychopathic individuals may also directly harm their partners with violence or by exposing them to sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, hepatitis, HPV, and herpes. The psychopathic individual may or may not have direct knowledge of what they are doing when infecting others with STD’s. While some may not be aware that they carry a certain disease, others may simply not care enough to take the precautions necessary to inhibit the spread of it.
Financial and Social Harm
The aftermath of psychopathy affects more than the mind and body. The weak impulse control of psychopathic individuals is especially pronounced where finances are concerned. The values that most people place on financial security, obligations, and commitments, often mean nothing to psychopathic individuals.
Psychopathy is characterized by moral bankruptcy that often leads to financial bankruptcy for the affected individual, family members and associates. As previously mentioned, psychopathic individuals often have no concern for anyone or anything not servicing their agendas or promoting their short-term personal gain. With little ability to plan for the future or accurately assess the potential consequences of their actions, they often leave trails of destruction that encompass more than their victims’ health.
Psychopathic individuals tend to want what they want when they want it; and they feel entitled, relentlessly insisting that others in their lives capitulate to support their wantonness.
Families and spouses of psychopaths are often left picking up the pieces of their financial shortcomings. Psychopathic individuals have been known to let homes foreclose, simply because they felt it was time to move on or, even worse, specifically so that their victims had no place to live. Children are often left without the support they need to grow and thrive. Although not an absolute, often, psychopathic individuals do not work consistently and are let go from many jobs. This may also add to victims’ financial devastation.
Similarly, a relationship with a psychopathic individual may negatively impact a person’s work status. If psychopathic individuals feel threatened or simply wish to destroy a victim financially or as it relates to their career, they usually will do so without hesitation.
It is likely that countless jobs have been lost and careers ended by ambitious and cruel psychopaths. They may manipulate superiors to believe that a victim is incompetent, or worse, render the victim incompetent through manipulations, conspiracy, or scheming which create either self-doubt or exhaustion[iii].
Lastly, the social devastation psychopaths leave in their wake is also cause for concern. In some cases, social devastation follows from loss of financial status. But largely, social destruction is personal. Individuals with psychopathic traits may attempt to ruin the lives of their victims through the use of social aggression. For example, it is common for psychopathic individuals to lie about their victims or portray them unfavorably in gossip, so as to damage their reputations. The line between those they like and those they do not like is very clear, but often unstable over time.
Relationships among family and friends are irreparably harmed without a second thought. Like “gas lighting” this practice is so common that there is a name for it. Victims refer to this process as the psychopath’s “smear campaign[iv].” There are numerous examples of this “smear campaign” in the stories victims have left on our forum.
To the extent that psychopathic individuals have no functioning conscience, they harm others without empathy or remorse. Psychopathic individuals seem to blaze through life at high speed, resembling a sports car that has no steering and no brakes. The fact that their harmful actions result from choices they make, tends to make the things they do seem even more unbelievable and reprehensible. In our experience, most people severely affected with psychopathy inflict some form of harm on nearly everyone they know. The harm is psychological, emotional, physical, financial and social. While education and knowledge can be powerful tools for the survivor, the aftermath of psychopathy can last a lifetime.
[i] Brown, S. and Leedom, L.J. (2008) Women Who Love Psychopaths: Inside the Relationships of Inevitable Harm. Fairfield, CT: Health and Well-Being Publications.
[ii] Kirkman, C.A. (2005) From soap opera to science: towards gaining access to the psychopaths who live amongst us. Psychol Psychother. 2005 Sep;78(Pt 3):379-96.
[iii] Babiak, P. and Hare R.H. (2006) Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York, NY, US: Regan Books/Harper Collins.
[iv] Andersen, D.A. (2007) Sociopaths and their smear campaigns. Lovefraud.com http://www.lovefraud.com/blog/2007/01/07/sociopaths-and-their-smear-campaigns/